Brookings City Council and Brookings-Harbor Chamber of Commerce faced off Thursday night like two wary dogs — curious about reinstating a friendship, but leery of missteps taken of the past and a surety of existence into the future.
City Manager Gary Milliman, an ex-officio member of the chamber, told city council the business association had expressed an interest in reviving a partnership with the city for tourism and marketing promotion.
Mayor Jake Pieper, in particular, seemed skeptical, but optimistic.
“There’s no animosity,” he said. “There was a kind of boredom with what the chamber was doing. They wrote a check, they came a gave a report, and when we wanted to try new things, there was a bit of posturing.
“Another thing is, you’re new. There’s turnover — a lot. I don’t want to say a revolving door, but since Les (Cohen, president for 23 years) left … we’ve got committee members who have been here longer. I like what you guys are saying, but it’s, ‘Are you here in a year?’”
The two entities are both new — no one on either board was serving when the chamber and city went their separate ways in 2012, noted chamber vice-chair Greg Williams. And a reunification could benefit both.
The Chamber of Commerce and the city worked together for years under the leadership of Cohen, whom all agreed brought the association from a fledgling group to a productive, vibrant entity.
Problems arose when the city wanted to explore new options in 2011. Part of those options involved only signing advertising contracts for a year, instead of the multi-year documents the chamber had previously penned with companies.
The chamber got a better rate with the multi-year contracts.
Neither side would budge, and the two agreed to part ways. The city then gave its tourism tax revenue to a newly-created Tourism Promotion Advisory Council (TPAC), and gave it virtual autonomy about how to spend that money.
The cash, about $35,000 a year, come from lodging taxes assessed to people who stay overnight in the city. TPAC spends most of the money on advertising with radio and television in the Rogue River Valley and the remainder on encouraging new events in the off-season.
The city councils in the ensuing years have all agreed TPAC is doing a good job.
“We see success stories,” Pieper said of tourists in town during TPAC-assisted events. “We see events happening around town. I’m pretty happy with that.”
The city, too, opened a small visitor’s center inside city hall to address the increasing number of people who came to the police department because they couldn’t find the chamber’s info center on Lower Harbor Road.
“That kind of happened by default,” Milliman said. “People ... couldn’t find the visitor center — and that’s when it was in the port. We don’t have time for dispatchers to be providing information to tourists about where the find the best restaurant.”
The chamber, in the years after the split, faded into near-obsolescence, although councilors said it would be hard to fill Cohen’s shoes. The annual auction, when he started, garnered $9,000 its first year; by the time he left, it brought in $25,000. It operated on a $20,000 budget that blew up to $200,000. Cohen could be found at almost every event in the state.
Until recently, the chamber operated its offices and a visitor’s center with volunteers at the Port of Brookings Harbor, then relocated up the hill. Now it plans to move into the Central Building in Brookings for better visibility on U.S. 101.
“There’s no secret the chamber has been through some organizational challenges,” Milliman said, of the past four years of disarray within the agency.
“The chamber exists entirely on volunteers and dues,” said board member Jerry Law. “It’s a very fine line, how we’re surviving.”
The new chamber, Williams said, is reinvigorated and growing, and wants to hear what Brookings is interested in having them do — and if they can do it.
“With a new board, we have different goals,” Williams said. “We’d like to work with you guys. Yeah, some things happened, but let’s figure out some resolutions and solutions to some things. At this point, it’s a lot of brainstorming. I think we could do a very good job.”
Much of that work might be more in the promotion and marketing realm — advertising and trade shows — than hosting new events in which which chambers typically don’t involve themselves.
“In my opinion, we’ve got three committees all doing the same thing,” said Councilor Brent Hodges. “Taking it off the city council plate wouldn’t bother me in the least.”
Brookings lodging establishment owners have in the past said they weren’t happy that the transient occupancy tax (TOT) they collect went to the chamber that in turn advertised events — most of which were taking place in Harbor and benefitted hotels in unincorporated Curry County.
“They see it going directly to the port,” Hodges said. “If I was a hotel owner, that would rub me the wrong way. It should be spread around the whole area.”
The Port of Brookings Harbor, however, pulled itself out of the event business in early 2016, and now charges people who want to host festivals, markets and other events to use their property. It was an abrupt decision — made right when some major event hosts were making initial plans for their summer events — but so far hasn’t deterred many.
City councilors said they liked the idea of relocating the visitor’s center to a more visible location, but expressed concern about northbound traffic — the bulk of Brookings’ tourists — having to turn left on Wharf or Center streets, particularly if they’re in RVs.
Williams admitted it was a challenge, but acknowledged there is room for RVs along those two streets and plenty of new city parking behind the building.
Hodges said he’d like to see the chamber reinvigorate the Azalea Fest, which has transformed over the years from an event in which families hid the floats they’d spent months making in garages to a parade of “councilors in cars, fire engines and old cars.”
“To see that come back in its old glory. ...” Hodges said “That would be neat.”
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